This week, on the 26th April, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published Colin Bloom’s independent review into how government engages with faith. The Bloom Review, titled Does government ‘do God?’ provides an urgently needed overview of what religions are contributing to society. It also looks at how government can work together with faiths for the common good.
Having surveyed the evidence, the Bloom Report comes to a clear conclusion that faith is an “overriding force for good” in the UK. The report also seeks to address harmful practices which government has found difficult to address, such as forced marriage, extremism, and faith-based exploitation. It concludes that a better understanding of faith will help government tackle such issues with greater intelligence, discernment and effectiveness. It therefore calls for more widespread and more accurate religious literacy among public servants and others. Naturally, it also emphasises the need for high quality Religious Education in our schools. This is becoming more and more important in an increasingly diverse and multicultural Britain.
What are religions doing to help? An earlier report by Danny Kruger MP pointed out that the five million members of the UK’s 20,000 local churches raised one fifth of “all charitable income in the country” – that’s £11 billion in a year. Added to that, the four and a half million members of other faith communities raised a further £5 billion. Perhaps the most well-known example of how religions engage with society is through food banks. The majority are run through churches, such as the St John’s multibank in Doncaster, or through mosques, such as the Green Lane Masjid in Birmingham. Government has responded with a Faith New-Deal Fund, putting money into partnership projects with religious communities.
Lockdown brought big changes. When just about everything closed down – from shops, to schools, to swimming pools – faith communities sustained themselves as some of the few remaining centres of community. In 2020, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society commissioned research to investigate how local authorities in the UK were engaging with faith groups. 194 local authorities (47.5% of all councils) responded. The APPG report on this research, Keeping the Faith: Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic (2020), set out the striking results: 91% of local authorities said that their “experience of partnership with faith groups” was “Very Positive” or “Positive”; 76% said that they expected that “new partnerships undertaken with faith groups during the pandemic” would continue into the future. In the reset, attitudes towards religions are being transformed.
Stephen Timms MP secured a parliamentary debate on the Keeping the Faith report on 11 February 2021, and this allowed a number of MPs to speak about their positive experiences of faith groups under lockdown. Timms himself outlined the extensive contribution made by religious communities: “Across the UK, nearly 60% of councils have been working with church-based food banks during the pandemic; 24% have been working with mosque-based food banks; 11% have worked with food banks in Gurdwaras, and 10% with food banks in Hindu temples”.
A particularly striking example was given by Adam Holloway MP in his reflections on the work of the Gravesend gurdwara.
[O]ur Sikh temple, the gurdwara, has had what in years past would have been described as a very good war. During the first lockdown, its langar delivered 64,000 free shared meals to individuals and to the local hospice and nursing homes. At the peak, it was doing 1,300 meals a day. When the European lorry drivers were trying to get home for Christmas, it did 800, 1,000 and then 1,500 meals a day. So far in this lockdown, the gurdwara has provided over 25,000 meals, and when the local hospital ran out of scrubs for the staff, it got fabric from Malaysia, had it sewn in Leicester and then distributed the scrubs.
The APPG report also provided evidence that one of the major barriers faced by local authorities had been their own lack of knowledge of religious groups and how to work with them cooperatively. This was despite of all the vital work done by faith-based food banks and other faith-based community projects. Anti-religious prejudice seems to have been a particular problem which needed to be overcome. Keeping the Faith reported that some of those interviewed had “reported a suspicion that a residual mistrust and antagonism to religion” remained in “town and city hall corridors”; one local authority worker admitted that “Our sector tends towards the hard left ideologically, politically, which pivots towards and constructionist, secularist’s ideal in which the faith institutions are the old enemy”. The implication is that bias against religion was a hurdle to overcome. But once local authorities recognised that faith groups provided a way of working with communities in need, they quickly understood that a change of mindset was required.
The Bloom Report now steps into this new policy space with some pretty straightforward recommendations. There needs to be more knowledge and understanding of religion in the public square. “Government should take steps to ensure that everyone on the public payroll, including civil servants in Whitehall and local councils, NHS and public health staff, teachers in schools, colleges and universities, and police, prison and probation officers, are provided with consistent, quality faith literacy training”.
It should be no surprise that Bloom also calls for another look at RE in schools to ensure higher levels of faith literacy. Research done by Professor Trevor Cooling at Canterbury Christ Church University is referred to in support of this recommendation.
Why should this be important for all of us, religious or not? For one thing, the future of the world is projected to be more religious. According to Pew Research some 84% of the world’s population is at present religious; this is predicted to rise to 87% by 2060. Much of this will be driven by global demographic change. Lower birth rates in normatively secular societies in the Global North, compared to higher birth rates in the Global South, mean that religious people will increasingly outnumber the non-religious. This is our shared future and we need to prepare for it.
That’s the global picture, but what about how this might affect us regionally and locally? According to Theos, the concentrated effects of globalisation in London already explains why 66% of the city is religious, compared to 56.6% in the rest of England and Wales. Given that by 2030 32% of 18 year olds will be from London and the South East, for us this means universities in the UK should start planning for the recruitment of undergraduates from a population that will be more markedly religious, and more markedly diverse, than at present. As we look ahead, all of us need to take religion more seriously, and in an increasingly pluralist society work with all people of goodwill for the common good.
Dr Ralph Norman is Principal Lecturer in Theology and Course Director for MA Religion & the Common Good.